Warning! Spring Football Report

<b>EDITORIAL</B>: Spring practice always brings optimism, even though some beaten-down UCLA fans aren't necessarily buying into it this time around. Our resident columnist, <b>Charles Chiccoa</b>, provides his version of guarded spring optimism...

So hurt and angry and disappointed are so many Bruin fans, particularly hardcore BROs, one hesitates to even broach the subject of spring football. This faction, call them the "gone fish'n crowd," simply don't want to hear it. They've read all the glowing spring reports before, heard all the talk about young quarterbacks' development, the maturity of redshirt freshmen and sophs, how they're ready to "step up" and replace departed stars. They've heard about the dynamic new assistants hustling around the practice field, barking, encouraging, teaching, spending quality time with the railbirds. They've heard all the assurances and reassurances before... and they won't be fooled again. They're sure disaster awaits: "So, Dan, what do you think? Any chance of a bounce back?"

"Please! You must be joking! More like a blowback. They'll be lucky to win a couple at home, maybe steal one on the road. Two and nine, three and eight, maybe four wins if they get the breaks. Hey, wake me when it's over."

I used to believe cranks without hope (or faith in BROther Samo's philosophic formulation) tended to be younger Bruins who hadn't experienced previous "dark ages," (with, of course, the notable exception of Lav), who perhaps lacked historical perspective. But no, there's no shortage of older Bruins who are also on this disaster trip. It must be a question of sensibility, something entirely personal, like taste in books, music, movies, the opposite sex.

For myself, even while suffering through the Billy Barnes era, and coming, as it did, just as Red Sanders had finally - and for the only time in Bruin history - eclipsed SC as a consistent national power, I still maintained an intense engagement with Bruin football. By the close of the ‘62 season it was obvious the program was spiraling down the drain. After an opening game upset of pre-season #1 Ohio St. at the Coliseum, an upset loss at Pitt in game three signaled the beginning of the end. The Bruins lost six of their last eight and finished last in the five team AAWU. Worse yet, John McKay's Trojans were not only Rose Bowl champions but also newly crowned national champions. The hardcore knew Barnes wasn't the answer and figured it was just a matter of time ‘till regime change. A passive athletic department left him dangling in the wind an additional two years, likely based in part on the conference championship and Rose Bowl appearance of his ‘61 team. Yet I still looked forward to each season (though with increasing trepidation), always found something to hang my interest on. Fortunately - courtesy of the draft - I spent the ‘63 and ‘64 seasons in the heart of Bavaria. But I still closely followed the Bruins in the Monday morning "Stars & Stripes," still had my family collect the local sports rags each month and ship them to me in stuffed brown envelopes. Happily, my homecoming coincided with John Wooden's second championship and Gail Goodrich's incredible tournament run, to be followed in the fall by Tommy Prothro's return to Westwood and Gary Beban's electric first season. But even in those gray Barnes years there were players to watch and enjoy: Billy Kilmer, Kermit Alexander, Bobby Smith, Mike Haffner, Mel Profit, Marv Luster, Almose "Moose" Thompson. There were even a few significant wins. But enough of nostalgia; you get the point.

I can't seem to be uninterested in the Bruin present, no matter the expectations. Entering the final week of spring ball I have no idea how any of this will translate once the real season begins; only a fool could go the "blind, myopic optimist" route after what we saw last year. On the other hand I haven't drunk the Kool-Aid either. I can't write off the season this early, though I understand why some of you might already have done so. If nothing else, this year will surely provide excellent drama.

Everyone agrees on the lack of overall team depth, especially when compared to what we've become used to. Once you've gotten past the nine players pictured on the front and back of the spring media guide you've about covered the returning "impact" players (and some might question one or two of those). Conspicuous by his absence here is Drew Olson, easily the key player on this team. Olson (along with Matt Moore) failed to show the expected improvement last year. He's played a lot of minutes his first two years, and it reminded me how unimpressed I was with Cade McNown until the final game of his second year. Anyway, I was curious to see how Olson's freshman and sophomore numbers compared to Cade's. Cade, of course, played even more minutes, threw more passes. He also "busted out" in that final game of his soph season, the memorable 48-41 overtime game vs. SC. Neither of them had an army of great receivers to throw to. Cade had Kevin Jordan one year and Jim McElroy both years. Olson had Craig Bragg both years. Cade also had the advantage of a multi-dimensional offense; Olson was stuck with the most one dimensional Bruin offense within memory. Yet Cade's numbers his first two years were not that much better. In any case, here's what I came up with: (Keep in mind that Cade threw 152 more passes over his first two years. You might also want to check my math.) Cade's completion percentages were 49% as a freshman, 52% as a soph; Olson's were 51% and 53%. Cade had 8 picks and 7 TDs as a freshman, and 16 picks and 12 TDs as a soph; Olson had 4 picks and 3 TDs as a freshman, and 9 picks and 10 TDs as a soph. Cade averaged 13.9 yards per completion as a freshman, and 13.8 as a soph; Olson's numbers were 13.2 and 11.95. Cade averaged 6.9 yards per attempt as a freshman, and 7.2 as a soph; Olson's number's were 6.75 and 6.4. This is absolutely not to suggest Olson should be compared to one of the three great quarterbacks in modern Bruin history (the other two being Gary Beban and Troy Aikman). It does suggest that it might be a bit premature to give up on Olson, which a certain number of Bruin fans seem to have done. And primarily because of that breakout game vs. SC, McNown was on an up-tick going into his junior year, whereas Olson finished his second year on a decided downer and has much more to prove going into his junior year.

Obviously, Cade was more mobile than Olson, was more accurate throwing downfield, particularly long bombs, which were always his specialty. Cade's superior pocket presence didn't really develop until his junior year. The point I'm trying to make here is that Olson has yet to play his last two years, and what was past is not always indicative of things to come. Olson has looked better this spring; he does appear to see the field better. He has enough size and his arm is strong enough. The offense, itself, looks more varied (it would be hard not to). Of course we're all familiar with that recurring, depressing scenario, the one wherein the Bruins successfully run some subtle new plays in the spring, then rarely, if ever, run them when it counts. Whether Olson can move the offense this fall, whether he can finally make the opposition back off from those ridiculously stacked fronts we've been looking at ever since Cade left and finally give the tailbacks some running room... this remains to be seen. To even begin doing this, Olson's going to have to attempt (and complete) a lot more passes than he has before, and KD and Tom Cable are going to have to let him throw more, are going to have to almost force some passes to the tight ends and to the backs. Bruin fans have been hoping and preaching this for years... but in vain.

Speaking of the quarterback position, the Bruins are still without an adequate backup for Olson. As expected, David Koral hasn't been able to push Olson up to this point. He's had problems finding receivers, then making accurate throws once he's found them. The hope, naturally, is that he's going through a period of adjustment, but he does seem to have an odd throwing motion, kind of snapping off his throws with his wrist and forearm rather than with a smooth arm motion, which makes it harder to be accurate downfield. Ultimately, of course, completions are all that matters. It would be nice to see Koral have some success in the final spring scrimmage. One hears talk among the railbirds that perhaps Brian Callahan might surprise, might become something more than the undersized walk-on with the small arm we've become familiar with. Sure, this "Rudy" has improved, but it's an incredible stretch to imagine him running a Pac-10 offense. We all know the Bruins are thin in the O line, at tight end (if Keith Carter is unable to return), defensive tackle and linebacker, but nowhere near as terrifyingly thin as at quarterback. For this reason alone, Matt Moore may become the single greatest loss from last year's team.

How many "playmakers" do the Bruins have? I'd put Maurice Drew at the top of the list followed by Craig Bragg, Manuel White, Justin London, Spencer Havner and Marcedes Lewis in roughly that order. Maybe throw in Jarrad Page and Ben Emanuel. Also Chris Kluwe, who may have the strongest Bruin leg since Kirk Wilson. Maybe even Justin Medlock, considering his quick start last year. Not a lot, I guess, but enough to make for an interesting season (at least for me). But it will likely be the secondary players and new guys who will determine the success or failure of this season.

Kevin Harbour will be missed, but his unlucky injury opens the door for the quick but undersized Bruce Davis, for Kyle Morgan and Justin Hickman and, most intriguing of all, for Brigham Harwell, the obvious jewel in this "sleeper" class. The defensive front needs to uncover another tackle or be forced to go with the formidable three man rotation of C.J. Niusulu, Kevin Brown and Junior Lemau'u. Wesley Walker has looked solid at outside linebacker, but between newcomers William Snead, Dan Nelson and the undersized Aaron Whittington, along with returnees like Ben Lorier, Tim Warfield and the constantly injured Patrick Pierre-Louis, someone needs to step up to provide linebacker depth. It would also be nice if Xavier Burgess is reinstated by fall (and the fact that he's been seen at practices leads you to believe he has a decent chance). The defensive backfield looks talented and deep to my eyes. Page and Nnamdi Ohaeri haven't even played this spring, but Eric McNeal, Dennis Keyes, Chris Horton, Mil'Von James and particularly Trey Brown have all shown well. Matt Clark seems a little bigger and a little less soft in coverage, and Marcus Cassel has some experience. Both of them look to be starting the final spring scrimmage. We may see considerable new blood in the secondary. Hopefully, they'll all find themselves in more aggressive coverages than last year. Overall the defense, as expected, looks leaner and quicker, which might encourage KD and Larry Kerr to apply more pressure vs. the passing game.

Beyond the question of Drew Olson and the O line, the Bruins aren't in that bad a shape. I like the receiving corp, and with the addition of Derrick Williams and the continuing comeback of Jason Harrison, the tailback depth looks okay. And there's no telling just how great Mo Drew might be. If the passing game can somehow relieve the pressure on Mo and Manny, not to mention the O line as a unit, the running game might finally shake loose. Michael Pitre is more of an offensive threat than we're used to seeing at fullback. He has quick feet for his size along with nice running instincts and, I would think, because of his offensive talents he'll push Pat Norton for the starting job. The best scenario, however, might be Manny at fullback catching lots of passes out of the backfield, while getting enough carries from split back formations and fullback to keep him happy and his draft status healthy (Mo needs to be on the field a lot). But I'll believe it when I see it.

I've always liked Idris Moss and Joe Cowan. Idris has had an outstanding spring and Cowan is just coming back now from an early injury. Junior Taylor (like Marcedes) has to have a better year than he had last season. Bragg, of course, is a given and Matt Slater looks to be a real gem.

Along the O line, after Steven Vieira, Eyoseph Efseaff, Mike McCloskey, Robert Chai, Paul Mociler, Ed Blanton, Marc Villafuerte and Robert Cleary, the Bruins need to find additional depth from among P.J. Irvin and likely incoming freshmen Shannon Tevaga and Aaron Meyer. Or perhaps even overweight walk-ons, Charles Thompson and Jamaal Rhodes. With a probable coaching upgrade in the form of Tom Cable, it can't be worse than last year.

For me it's too early to buy into the lowered expectations for this season. I assume the Bruins will be picked around seventh or eighth in the conference. Another meltdown wouldn't shock me, particularly with some key injuries, but I would be surprised. I just don't see this team as the sure train wreck the Cranks are anticipating, not to mention the fact that lowered expectations provide a built-in excuse. The non-conference schedule is certainly not daunting. I'm open. I'll just take it game to game and see what happens.

First up, Oklahoma State. Hey, "BRING...IT...ON."


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